Two Letters Re: Fire Protection 101

Dear Mr Rawles,
In regard to the article by Firefighter Charles on fire protection, I imagine (and, indeed hope) that I won’t be the only person who suggests a qualifier to the advice on what to do with a fire in a cooking pan.  My understanding is that one should NEVER put water on a pan which holds oil or fat, because the resulting explosive burst of steam and fat will leave anyone attempting the exercise with extensive, serious burns.

I realize that Firefighter Charles dealt with grease fires earlier in the same paragraph, but wondered if it might be helpful to make the point about fires in pans of oil/fat explicitly.

With many thanks for your helpful site and my regards, – Philip M.

Thank you Mr Rawles and Firefighter Charles. While much of the information provided by Firefighter Charles is very good basic info, I feel there are some serious and potentially deadly errors presented here. I would like to explain:

1: NEVER throw flour on a fire. You risk creating a small fuel air explosion. Think grain silo dust explosion. Flour is finely ground plant material and is combustible! If it creates a cloud through your toss or by being blow upward by the thermal plume created by the fire, it can “flash”. Sugar is glucose and equally flammable. I have seen a few Pop Tarts break in toasters and really get going.
Baking soda, not baking powder [or flour] should be used. Salt is also acceptable.
Most professional chefs leave a pan cover or wet towel on the side of the grill that is large enough to cover the pan.
NEVER move a flaming pan from the stove to a sink or exterior. (Bad Chef Ramsey) If you move to quickly the contents will splash out or the flame will flare out over your hand causing you to drop it. Pouring flaming oil down the sink will damage most modern plumbing. If you start the faucet over and through the heated flaming oil (600 to 800 F) the water will “explode” into steam (212 F) and aerosol the flaming oil for the first few seconds.

NOTE: If you are using a propane turkey fryer indoors, then stop doing so! I have seen one entire house and two garages lost this way. If you have not properly measured the oil level or it is caused to boil over you just may get to restart building your structure from scratch. (Ref NFPA 10, IFSTA Life safety educator 2nd edition and NFPA Fundamentals of Firefighter skills 2nd edition)

2: Crawling low to get away from smoke is the way to go, but I got the impression that active unprotected firefighting was partially encouraged. Be advised: Smoke does kill most fire victims. It does so through three ways: carbon monoxide, cyanide and heat. Trying to crawl through a modern house fire is suicide. Construction and interior materials have changed since the 70s. Houses are now weather sealed for energy efficiency. Interior materials are now synthetic petrochemicals (20% benzene) in a solid stable state. A fire breaks down the synthetics with thousands more BTUs than old wool and wood. The smoke is not allowed to vent and is heating other materials in the structure which now begin to thermally break down, melting and vaporize.

The gasses created are too hot to breathe and will sear your eyes and lungs shut. Temperatures at 18″ and higher can exceed 600 F. The most common byproducts of the incomplete burning (black smoke) are carbon monoxide (which will disorient before killing you and is the reason most die), hydrogen cyanide (which will kill you and has yet to be properly treated after smoke inhalation in the US. Europe has had it in their protocols for the last decade, they got something right!).

This all happens in less than 5 minutes from open flame. If you are upstairs where the smoke and heat will flow first, you have 90 seconds to get out.
Due to the heat and byproducts (benzene) in the super heated gases, you will have flash over soon. The temperatures will reach over 1200 F. A fully suited firefighter has less than 14 seconds to escape that atmosphere or he will cook in his suit. It is rated to protect the wearer at 5 minutes at 500 F, and the time greatly diminishes with each 100 F increase. You will not make it, and the radiant heat will bank down on anyone too close to the exterior openings. Get out and get away. (Ref NFPA Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills 2nd addition, IFSTA Firefighter 5th edition and Brannigans Building construction for the fire service)

3: Combination detectors are fine. Ionization detectors have a radioactive element with a 10 year half life. The data of manufacture or expiration should be on the unit. If not, replace it. Photo electric sensors do not expire. Firefighter Charles is right, you should have both types.

Detectors mounted on [upper walls near] ceilings must be mounted at least 4″ from the ceiling but no lower than 12″ and at least 12″ from wall corners. If mounted on the ceiling itself, they should be at least 12″ from any wall and 3′ from ceiling fans or ducts. This is due to air flow disruption and smoke layering issues. (Ref NFPA 72)

4: Unless the fire is small and you have an extinguishing method on hand CALL FOR HELP FIRST! Evacuate, then fight the fire. (If SHTF [or you live in a remote area] then disregard, we probably aren’t coming quick enough if at all). The leading cause of injury and fire loss in an occupied (you inside) structures is delay in fire department notification (ref FEMA and FM Global Insurance). If the fire is larger than 3’x3′ it is past “incipient” stage and will rapidly spread. The rule of thumb is for every 18 degree F increase the fire will double in size or damage potential. This changes with the size and type of the fuel (your stuff) and the container (room-house) it is in. More stuff in less space = quicker hotter fire.

5: One more thing you can do to make your house safe is to keep doors closed and storage in containers. By limiting the areas heat and smoke can travel and the total surface areas that can be affected fire growth is slowed.

Once again, thanks for the info Firefigher Charles, and “Omnis Cedo Domus” my brother! (Everyone Goes Home, the national firefighter motto) – P.A.F.